She may have once played one of the most train wreck roles in movie history as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but Faye Dunaway has always delivered an unmatchable level of dignity and refinement to the most tawdry of characters. Even as an incestuous tart in Chinatown, Dunaway managed to bring aplomb to Evelyn Mulwray’s wretchedness. Essentially, there isn’t a single role that the Floridian actress hasn’t managed to imbue with equanimity.
While Dunaway had a number of parts prior to her breakout in Bonnie and Clyde, it wasn’t until she rendered the notorious Bonnie Parker with a bit of frigidity, uncertainty and even humility that Dunaway was given her fair due as an actress. While her specialty was in theater (which she majored in at the University of Florida), it was always evident that Dunaway had the face and the presence for silver screen acting.
Although there were moments after Bonnie and Clyde where Dunaway’s career seemed to stall, it was with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown that she regained her footing and proved, once and for all, that no one can repeat the phrase, “My sister, my daughter” with half as much torment and intrigue. The buildup to this infamous and shocking admission about having an incestuous relationship is meticulously controlled. No one short of a corpse has ever maintained so much stoicism.
Her next most notable role was as the cutthroat and conniving Diana Christensen in Network, which she won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for. Diana’s ex, Max Schumacher (played by an aging William Holden), sums up Dunaway’s shrewd, calculated performance best with the line, “You’re television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”
After Network, Dunaway suffered another lull until one of her most iconic roles playing another icon: Joan Crawford, who would have undoubtedly approved of Dunaway’s classic line, “No wire hangers!” While Mommie Dearest is often viewed as one of those “so bad it’s good” type of movies, one can’t deny the intensity Dunaway exudes as one of the most delightfully depraved Hollywood stars of the twentieth century–and all with such coolness and self-possession.
While Dunaway’s career has essentially fallen off the map apart from her Golden Globe winning role as Wilhelmina Cooper (apparently, she’s best at playing other famous people) in 1998, audiences will continuously be able to look to the poise and elegance of Bonnie Parker, Vicki Anderson (The Thomas Crown Affair), Evelyn Mulwray, Susan Franklin (The Towering Inferno), Diana Christensen and, yes, Joan Crawford.